Culinary heritage in miniaturesFebruary 18, 2018 @ 2:00PM
By Alan Teh Leam Seng
IT takes most people about an hour to put together a decent yu sheng (raw fish dish) at home but for Juliana Fan, this task can take up to a day or two. Then, after all the toil and sweat, all she can afford herself is to just visually enjoy the fruits of her labour. The reason? Fan is a miniature replica creator.
“Yu sheng is an important Chinese New Year tradition here in Singapore. This raw fish dish is consumed mainly because of the homophonic conflation of its name which has the auspicious connotation of abundance, prosperity and vigour,” explains Fan.
Gazing lovingly at her creation cradled between her fingers, Fan turns back the clock to the day she decided to take up the challenge. “This was made during Chinese New Year a few years ago. It was a challenge right from the start as there were so many components to consider. But I was spurred by the festive feeling then so I steeled myself to go ahead. I hadn’t actually tried my hands at making it before.”
I listen intently as Fan tells me how she started by taking lots of photographs of the actual dish as part of her research. With a chuckle, she recalls making everyone at the table wait while she set her camera on full drive.
“After comparing my photos with those on the Internet, I eventually came up with the most ideal composition for my work,” relates Fan, adding that her next challenge came in the form of mixing the many different clay colours to create the desired effect. “Then I had to patiently cut everything into strips and assemble them on a miniature platter which I made myself. With this colourful dish having no less than 16 ingredients, you can imagine the amount of time invested!”
Like a true maestro, Fan ends the story of her yu sheng odyssey by telling me about the origins of this traditional dish. While many versions exist, a popular legend tells of the goddess Nu Wa who spent six days creating animals out of mud. On the seventh day, the deity made humans.
“The Chinese correspondingly celebrate that momentous occasion, which is known as renri or ‘every person’s birthday’, by consuming yu sheng on the seventh day of Chinese New Year. Tossing the ingredients high in the air is symbolic of the wish for rising fortunes and expanding businesses in the forthcoming year,” explains Fan.
This custom, she adds, was brought to Singapore by the Chinese immigrants during the 19th century. Scholars believe that the people who arrived from Guangdong province were the first to start introducing this dish. But back then, the dish wasn’t so elaborate. The raw fish slices were simply tossed with ginger slices, spring onion, coriander, sesame seeds, lime juice and oil.
Noticing my keen interest in her work, Fan offers to give me a brief demonstration on how she sculpts clay into one of Singapore’s most popular afternoon tea time snack — kueh dadar. The 32-year-old part-time artist spares no details as she produces an array of sculpting tools together with a box filled with palm-sized clay packs.
Likening herself to a chef in the kitchen, Fan wields her instruments like a true expert. She starts off by first preparing the light green skin, using sandpaper to roughen the exterior. Then, she rolls some brown clay in between her fingers to make the filling. Fan combines the two with the help of a sharp razor, deftly wrapping the former over the latter, envelope style.
Finally, she cuts the tiny green oblong block into two and shows me an exposed severed end. I unintentionally let out an audible gasp. The little thing in her hand looks exactly like the real McCoy! Despite its already perfect look, Fan continues to use a sharp metal needle to roughen the middle section.
While doing this she explains: “The actual kueh dadar has a filling made from grated coconut and that does not have a smooth texture. So I have make sure that the inner surface of my creation also reflects this.”
Observing the process, it dawns on me just how challenging it is to make these miniature art pieces. Smiling, Fan shares that even during the day, she, at times, seeks the help of an LED desk lamp to facilitate her endeavour. Also, due to the intense level of concentration, hourly eye breaks are mandatory.
While waiting for her to tidy up, I shift my attention to a nearby box of creations which consist of miniaturised versions of most popular food dishes in Singapore. There must be at least 15 different types ranging from favourite hawker fare like kwey chap and loh bak to festive delights such as mooncakes and dumplings.
The one that catches my attention is the chicken rice spread. In them, I once again notice Fan’s attention to detail. Not only does she make the main dish but also takes the trouble to recreate in miniature the accompanying side dishes and sauces. There’s even a bowl of soup complete with spring onion garnishing! By now, I’m starting to understand why Fan calls herself the Miniature Asian Chef. Each and every item that she makes is a true representation of the food items that we see in everyday life.
LABOUR OF LOVE
“Feeling hungry looking at the dishes?” Fan asks in jest when she returns to the dining room of her three-room Bendemeer Road apartment. While showering compliments on her work, I ask the inevitable — prices.
Fan, who also turns her decorative items into jewellery pieces like ear studs and cufflinks, sells the easy-to-make items like hairpins at S$10 (RM29.70) each. The more complex items and full-set ones such as a kaya toast set that includes a cup of kopi O (black coffee) and two half-boiled eggs, just like the ones served at coffee shops, can go for around S$60. Interest in these affordable miniature works of art is on the rise, judging from the long waiting list.
The artist shares that the Singapore retail scene, which has long been dominated by international fashion brands, is experiencing a major shift. “The landscape, of late, has evolved to a point where local home-grown designers are starting to come into their own and carve out a niche for themselves with uniquely made in Singapore fashion and art statements,” she adds excitedly.
Pointing to the parade of her art pieces in the box, Fan says: “We often take our everyday food for granted and don’t realise that they’re an integral part of our lives. In my creations, I hope to inspire awareness Singapore’s unique culinary attributes.”
After a few moments of searching among her multicoloured ensemble, Fan eventually rests her index finger on a plate of png kueh (rice cakes) and shares that they’re one of the easiest local food items to replicate. When asked which challenges her creativity the most, she immediately points to the durian. “Apart from making each spike individually and painstakingly sticking them on one by one, I have to ensure they have different shades of green.”
Touching the yellow pulp portion gently, she reveals that the durian item is her one and only example. After spending three nights to complete, Fan is unwilling to part with it. It’s the only item in her collection that doesn’t have a price tag.
LOVE FOR INTRICATE CRAFT
Apart from selling her creations, Fan is also a collector herself. She currently has more than 100 miniature collectibles which are not just confined to the food genre. The full-time advertising and promotions manager is also a proud owner of exquisite pieces of furniture and cooking sets.
Her love for this intricate craft, confides Fan, started when she was in primary school. Noticing a dearth of miniature replicas, especially those of local cuisine, she started experimenting on her own. Today, that interest has blossomed into a full-fledged passion which she brings to life each weekend.
For Fan, her chosen expression serves as a refuge from the rigours of her weekday full-time work life.
Determined to leave something behind for her children and future grandchildren, Fan focuses her work primarily on “uniquely Singapore” delicacies. “I’m passionate about food items like kueh tutu and ang ku kueh which are fast disappearing from the local food scene. Hopefully, my art can play a part in preserving this intangible heritage before it’s too late,” she says, expression determined.
Ang ku kueh is a sweet, local Chinese confectionary that has a chewy glutinous rice outer skin that wraps around a centre that can contain a variety of different fillings, such as peanuts and yellow bean paste. Captivated by its interesting form and colour, Fan decided to turn it into wearable food-inspired accessories.
The Miniature Asian Chef’s ang ku kueh collection includes earrings, cufflinks, necklace and hairpin. “The popularity of this collection took me by surprise. As more orders kept coming in, I had to resort to making a mould to meet the demand,” she explains cheerily before adding that the earrings are very popular.
“A local law firm asked me to prepare 50 pairs of miniature ang ku kueh as corporate gifts for their clients in San Diego some time ago. So, in a way, I’m glad that our local products have reached even the United States.”
Before leaving, I help Fan return her pieces to their pride of place on her living room sideboard. Unintentionally, my focus falls on the yu sheng piece. With Chinese New Year upon us, I’m sure that many reunion dinners will be featuring this dish. However, the question remains — can they be as perfect as the one created by the Miniature Asian Chef?
Visit www.miniatureasianchef.com for details